Talk - Why Digital Friendships are so Important

As part of the The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)'s Festival of Social Science 2015, I was invited to stand on the "positives" side for an event entitled Are You Really My Friend? Exploring Digital Relationships focused on information for Sixth Form Students. I think this is a really exciting time for digital and online friendships, as I think, the number of "baddies" or "trolls" is petering out. There are a lot less shock stories in the media about nasty people causing mayhem online, and even though I'm not saying they don't exist or that online bullying isn't a really serious issue, the numbers are a fraction of the people who use digital to communicate.

Back in 2013, I talked at an event about Geeks Not Gender and how there were many online problems with the world understanding that women could be geeks too, without a whole online barrage of negativity, death threats and more, so you might be surprised to then see me 2 years later talking at this event, and standing up for digital friendships. Well, I think that's the key here "friendships", in it's nature a "friend" is someone who is nice to you and you should (ok, maybe most of the time) have a happy, supportive and nice relationship with. I actually find using digital comms to keep in touch with my family and friends much quicker and easier to keep in touch more regularly, and actually, exciting! I also, find in a time when the world seems to be so time-poor, that sometimes, rather than taking two weeks to try and arrange that coffee, you can just have a digital chat that says "hi, hows it going?" to show them you're thinking of them. With all my Close Karmic Circle, they know, that if they every needed anything, and for me to physically be there, they only need ask. The digital for me, supplements my "irl" connections and adds new and exciting communities of interest into my circle. The fact they come from across the world, may mean I don't meet them all face to face, but I would say we are connected in some small way.

So, for this event, I was asked to talk about the Positives of Online Friendships, and here's my overview... 96% of 9-11 year olds in the UK, regularly use the internet to communicate and 81% of 13-18 year olds in the UK, own a smartphone. Ofcom, 2014 and 57% of all teens have made online friends. 20% of those have met in person. Pew Research, 2014

Online friendships are a great way of... *Keeping in touch with family and friends you already know "irl" *Keeping in touch with them on a more regular basis that you might do face to face *Linking online and offline - great ice breakers, arranging meetups, knowing their interests and what's going on in their world, being supportive and interested in what they do *Chat with friends who live across the world *Accessing friends and networks, for those who have barriers for meeting people in person *Help widen your communities - find other people across the world who like the same things you do, learn new skills, play games, share ideas, have supportive networks Being in online friendships, using the right platforms, can also help you have a great online presence (or digital footprint) in future. It's also a great way to learn how to build new and support existing relationships online, a good skill if you want to get a job or run your own business in future. There are obvious words of caution that need to be mentioned. Make sure you use common sense, think about your safety, and remember to be aware of your security of information and what you share with who. There are on all channels of communications, ways of blocking people or content if you don't feel safe or happy anymore. 5% of online users are "trolls" and 43% are lurkers, the other 52% are visibly active in some way online Girls are more likely to use messaging apps, where boys are more likely to connect to friends through online gaming The trend of "digital friendships" is ever changing, and the increase in use of messaging apps such as WeChat and WhatsApp, means digital friendships can be "online" but behind closed doors. Which is much better for your online profile. 40% of young people don't realise that information shared online stays there forever, and is very hard to remove all traces completely. Make sure you know how to use the security settings on the platforms you use, so you only share the content you want, with the people you want to see it. I personally, am online all the time, have a smartphone, run my online brand and business profiles online, and I choose very carefully what I share with who. I have a public persona on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, and I personally chat with friends online via private and encrypted apps.

I'm happy with what I share online, are you?

Then there were three questions posed to the room, which were I think, pretty dang interesting.

Is it possible to trust someone if you have never met them face to face? Now, more than ever we are more online, more often, and it's much easier to background check our friends, relatives, co-workers, colleagues. Do you trust someone you meet in real life for the first time, straight away? How authentic are online friendships? They are as authentic as the people in the friendship makes them. If you are truly yourself online, then online is merely an extension of yourself. There are people who can't grasp this concept, and who befriend others, which is truly sad. Use the tools in the good way they are intended, to make the world a better, happier, connected place.

Is authenticity being redefined by the digital environment? The majority of people who are online, are being themselves. The Keyboard warriors are very few and far between - those who are different online, than in real life. If you are going to play a different persona online, don’t use your real name. That online history might come back to haunt you later. It is so easy now, to Google someone and find out everything there is online about them, it's hard if you're not being authentic, to keep it up for long! And to finish off, for those older digital users amongst us, I found an interesting article on the blurred lines between "chatting" and "cheating" Overall, I'm still totally "for" online and digital friendships and relationships, I think it actually enriches our day-to-day lives. I love being able to send a quick "hey, hows things" to brighten someone's day up. I love chatting with friends online, and even though there are some nasty people out there (believe me, I've met a few!), the majority of the people I have met online and connected with after meeting in person, are all truly an awesome and inspiring lot. The 5% of trolling people, can keep their negativity, and when they get me down, I now know from experience, I've got 95% of my other friends that will pick me right back up.

Online love and positivity vibes to all!